Who’s That Girl?

This weekend I visited my old university, twenty-three years after I last walked through its gates. Even though I live in London, mere miles away from the location, I’ve never gone near the place, so when an alumni reunion came up I thought it would be the perfect opportunity.

Roehampton University (or Institute, as it was back then) is arranged around a number of Grade I and II listed buildings in leafy west London, not far from Putney and Wimbledon (where I lived). When I first arrived there – a slightly scared and very naive 22-year-old in 1989 – the leafy beauty of Froebel college, where I did my dance and English classes was slightly lost on me, because I was from leafy beautiful North Wales.

Grove House, Froebel College

Grove House, Froebel College

Just walking through the Froebel gates two days ago made me realise I’d been so lucky to study there. Grove House, the main building, is an 18th-century villa once owned by a Parisian ballet dancer (and courtesan!) and her husband. I’d had no idea of the history of the place until this weekend’s historical tour – I just did classes there and sat in the Portrait Room for lunch (it popped up in the first episode of Strictly this weekend, when all the dancers met for the first time…)

The Portrait Room at Froebel College - used to be the bar, now saved for Strictly...

The Portrait Room at Froebel College – used to be the bar (via the little door to the right of the fireplace), now it’s hosting Strictly dancers.

I’ve known for a long time that the young woman I was at university is not the woman I am now. In fact, I barely recognise her, and there are very few pictures of me at that time. I tried to access my ‘story’ as I walked around the grounds with friends who recounted unrequited loves, Fresher’s Ball shenanigans and dorm parties, but I couldn’t really remember much of it.

I’d thrown myself wholeheartedly into studying Dance and English (it was a two-subject degree), and can remember myself sitting in lectures or at the back of class in the dance studio, but the person I was?

I’ve got no idea.

It feels like I was literally a blank page waiting to be filled in. I think that’s why I eventually got the urge to do a degree, after four years of teaching ballet. My brain was craving the experience and the information.

I didn’t drink or have boyfriends at university. I know, I know. This is the time you’re meant to do it, meant to get it all out of your system – make the mistakes, sleep with the wrong guys, wake up in someone else’s student accommodation and stumble hungover into the cafeteria for a burger and chips. But I didn’t. I was such a ‘good’ girl. I danced hard, I studied hard, I had crushes on guys at a distance, I didn’t notice the guys who were trying to make a move on me. It was only later that I realised a few of them had tried. They even tried to get me drunk and I resisted all their attempts. I seriously was No Fun At All.

That time for me was about becoming someone. Filling my brain with information and opening it up to possibility. Strengthening my body and expressing things through dance (and yes, we did run round a room and slap ourselves across the face – it was fashionable in contemporary dance back then).

It would still take some years after to actually Become Someone. I don’t really recognise my current self until around six years later, when I was living in Brighton, working in publishing and still doing dance classes. I was twenty-eight. In many ways, I’m still her.

Me dancing at Merton Abbey Mills just after uni.

Me dancing at Merton Abbey Mills just after uni.

I often laugh with friends who were at Roehampton at the same time about our different experiences of the same university. They did all the things you’re supposed to do (well, most), I did none of them. Except study. At one point during the reunion, we listened to a lecture by Professor Nicola Humble on Modernist Fiction and food and I was transported back briefly to the Girl I Was Before, listening to Professor Humble talk to me about women in the eighteenth century.

She’d just started her teaching career at Roehampton in 1992 and I was in my final year. As she spoke so articulately and academically this weekend I remembered how I loved being in that world where thinking about things and drawing conclusions about them dominated my life. I look back at my old dissertation on Behind the Mask: Masculinity in Shakespearean Tragedy and wonder who the hell it was that wrote it. My voice is completely unrecognisable, but I sound so sure of my subject. (It makes me smile that I’m often pre-occupied with male behaviour today – this pattern of observation definitely started at university.)

I wandered around the old dance studio and remembered the young woman with a terrible body-image problem who couldn’t look at herself in the mirror, but put her heart and soul into learning contemporary dance techniques. I was fit as a fiddle, doing a two-hour class (or more) every day, but had no idea my body was so strong – I just took it for granted.

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The professor who had mentored my dissertation, Kim Reynolds, went on to found the MA in Children’s Literature at Roehampton and it makes me smile that I once bumped into her in the kitchen at Scholastic Children’s Books where I was the Publishing Director. It felt like a circle had been completed, but this time, Kim could meet the real me, the one who had blossomed later in life.

It was also a source of pride that author Philip Pullman had praised Roehampton so much at a dinner party I attended for The Golden Compass, when I was dreading admitting where I’d studied. And this weekend, author Dame Jacqueline Wilson, Chancellor of the University, commented on its excellence in her alumni speech.

Dame Jacqueline reading from Four Children and It

Dame Jacqueline reading from Four Children and It

Wherever I go, my world circles around between children’s books and Roehampton, but I didn’t know that they would back then.

Some things are just meant to be.

Part of me wishes I could go back to Roehampton knowing what I know now, to really get the most out of it. But part of me is glad that Roehampton is where I started to become someone, even if I was a bit late to the party.

I’m making up for that now. You can’t be a good girl forever.

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Why I’ll Never Stop Trying to be Kate Bush

I have tickets for two performances of Kate Bush’s Before the Dawn at Hammersmith Apollo – her first major appearance since the groundbreaking Tour of Life in 1979.

Thirty-five years ago.

Wow.

Unbelievable.

A few months ago in March, I was in the office almost in tears trying to get hold of tickets, but they’d sold out in fifteen minutes whilst I was manically refreshing about seventy ticket-website tabs online. I put a desperate call out on Facebook and Twitter and friends magically produced two separate tickets to performances in September.

I’m a very lucky lady.

But what if I’d missed the only opportunity to see the goddess, the woman I’d worshipped since her debut as a 19-year-old in 1978, when I was eleven years old? I can’t even bear to think about it.

I have spent my whole life since 1978 Trying To Be Kate Bush. She has single-handedly encapsulated everything I long to be: creatively, physically, audibly, kinetically. I don’t know how she’s done it, but she seems to gather all my passions: Irish music, contemporary dance, literature and physical theatre and do something brilliantly original with them. For some reason, my musical tastes tend to favour male voices but she stands out in my collection as the only female artist I’ve gone crazy over. Every album, every picture, every book, every set of hair crimpers.

Wuthering Heights. I was 11 years old when I first saw La Bush whipping around in white on Top of the Pops. I didn’t know what she was singing about – I hadn’t read Emily Brontë‘s novel at that point – but later I would become obsessed with it. All I knew was, there was a young woman I wanted to be, on my TV. The long flowing hair, the floaty white dress, the shapes her body made as she danced. Oh Kate. I was in love.

I was living in North Wales at the time and we’d moved to a hilltop village called Brynford after my dad had died a couple of years earlier. I had started secondary school and had begun to wake up to the world – I often found myself roaming around the surrounding moorland, constantly looking for something to happen, with our Jack Russell terrier, Sherry, running in circles around me, chasing sheep.

I was in that yearning stage – the one that is now partly satisfied in the reading of Young Adult novels, but for me, yearning was done Kate Bush-style. I did actually have a couple of long white dresses, and long, crimped hair that my mum used to plait when it was wet to make it really Bush-like. I was Being Kate. When I finally read Emily Bronte’s astonishing novel, I was in full ‘looking for Heathcliff’ mode, certain he would pop out from the rough bits of the golf course near my house where Sherry and I roamed. He never did, the bastard.

Let’s just stop for a moment and consider how brilliantly original Brontë‘s work was, never mind Kate’s rendition of it. From a Victorian parsonage in deepest Yorkshire, this woman writes a supernatural doomed love story of such tremendous passion and power that she allows the heroine to die half way through. It’s written partly in Yorkshire vernacular, and begins with the ghost of Catherine Earnshaw tapping at a window, one victim of the “unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.” Heathcliff, he of the Byronic tortured soul, is the dark and demonically brooding love interest that won’t let her sleep. Emily B – you rock. You were the Kate Bush original of your day and I will always love you, too.

Back to Kate. She wrote that song at the age of 18 and summed up every young adult’s yearning:

Ooh, it gets dark! It gets lonely
On the other side from you
I pine a lot. I find the lot
Falls through without you
I’m coming back, love
Cruel Heathcliff, my one dream
My only master

I pined a lot, too.

Kate’s voice then became the soundtrack to my teenage life. She sang about love and sex a lot (Feel It, The Kick Inside) but in terms I didn’t quite understand, so veiled were most of the references. I didn’t mind it all being a bit veiled back then – I was brought up Catholic and went to a Catholic school where we didn’t talk about stuff like that. Much. I quite liked the fact that it was all a mysterious force somewhere out there, waiting for me.

In the mid-1980s, Kate released the Hounds of Love album, cementing my love for her. It was conceptual, with the two sides (when albums had two sides) differing completely. The first was fairly mainstream (for Kate), filled with what would become ‘popular’ hits, and the second had a narrative that was based around the idea of someone stuck out at sea at night, waiting for death.

Once again, Bush blew me away with her creative originality and intelligence. Her videos – notably Running Up That Hill – featured contemporary dance sequences because she had studied with choreographer Lindsay Kemp (as had David Bowie). By that point I was obsessed with ballet and dance and she just fed my passion. I’d also started to listen to Irish instruments and musicians and forming a passion for all things Irish, and they featured heavily on the ‘Ninth Wave’ section of Hounds of Love.

Nailed it again, Kate.

I have always striven to be as original and creative as Kate, in work and life. Why do what everyone else is doing when you can carve out something for yourself and show it to the world? I find ‘me too’ activities uniquely demotivating and soulless.

I remember trying to choose an English Literature dissertation topic for my degree and briefly toyed with the idea of doing one on something feminist before realising that almost every other woman was choosing ‘Women in Victorian Literature’ as their subject. I went for Masculinity in Shakespearean tragedy – the exact opposite. I still think it’s a good PhD subject, should I ever go there. I find it fascinating.

Recently I pitched a panel idea to a publishing seminar group where almost everyone chooses the theme of ‘digital’ or ‘ebooks’ to hang their debates on. “I’ll do print books, then”, I thought. Might as well go for the polar opposite. Even this blog is the reverse of what everyone might’ve expected me to write about: publishing.

‘Me too’ publishing is a thing – where publishers choose to publish almost exactly the same thing as another, if the original book has sold well. I give you Fifty Shades of Grey and its billions of copies. I know it makes commercial sense, but it’s the death of originality to keep churning out the same thing. I’m always tempted to do the opposite – I think that’s why I prefer parody books if I’m going to do a bit of ‘me too’ – Fifty Sheds of Grey was a brilliantly original, humorous take on E L James’ über trilogy, based on a Twitter parody account. Loved it, and at one point it was outselling the original in the UK.

So once again, back to Kate: alongside Bowie, one of the most brilliantly original artists in the world. Who chooses to make a breathy sexy song out of James Joyce’ stream-of-consciousness modernist novel, Ulysses? Kate does. Who uses a Bulgarian female voice choir on a song about tying yourself to a rocket and shooting off into space? Kate does. Who shoots a video of themselves dressed up as a young boy whose father is being arrested for making rain? Kate does.

I could go on.

One of Kate’s most profound songs for me is Moments of Pleasure, from The Red Shoes album. You get little glimpses into her visual memory bank – her mother, her guitarist in the studio, her producer in his chair at Abbey Road – people who aren’t necessarily in her life any more. It’s glorious. And then, she just sums it up:

Just being alive
It can really hurt
And these moments given
Are a gift from time
Just let us try
To give these moments back
To those we love
To those who will survive

I’m going to enjoy my Kate Bush moments at the Apollo because they’re glimpses into my own visual memory bank and a gift from time.

I love you, Kate, and I’ll never stop trying to be like you.

Playlist in order of mention:

Wuthering Heights: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-1pMMIe4hb4

Running Up That Hill: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wp43OdtAAkM

The Sensual World: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h1DDndY0FLI

Rocket’s Tail: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7yeimyOsdrA

Cloudbusting: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K69hEnLpSY8

Moments of Pleasure: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pW5hjWVS3ho